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It’s been over 2 years since Alina Cojocaru danced a MacMillan ballet at Covent Garden. While the public in Washington DC and Havana were able to see her Manon last summer, Londoners who had been dreaming of seeing her in Mayerling at the start of the autumn season had to hold their breaths a little longer and await her return to MacMillan in the role of Juliet, the very same role she had danced in the autumn of 2007.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The wait was most definitely worth it. If before her Juliet was moving, now she is heartwrenching. She has matured the role, refined it, added nuance and experience, less the innocent teenager more the tragic outcast, headstrong-yet-vulnerable girl transformed by love. These qualities are evident, for instance, in the scene where Juliet, already secretly married to Romeo, tries to challenge her parents as they impose the nobleman Paris on her.  As she tries to fight back, throwing her fists at the father, pleading to the mother, the realisation sinks in that she is alone in this, her whole body expressing the humiliation Juliet has suffered.

Whereas 2 years ago she might have played the scene where Juliet hides under the covers with a slight hint of comic relief now it looks like desperation, the will to disintegrate and not have to deal with an impossible situation, grief written in her face.  This time few in the audience were chuckling.

Alina Cojocaru as Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The other pivotal moment in Alina’s interpretation comes when she discovers the lifeless Romeo in the Capulet tomb, her desperate howl of pain – albeit silent – is louder than Prokofiev’s sublime score. Her last gesture slowly motioning at the faint light above the tomb suggests the hope at a reunion with Romeo in heaven, almost as if she can already see their souls transcending.

While Johan Kobborg might not be my dream cast Romeo he is unquestionably a perfect partner for Alina’s Juliet. If technically her Juliet was arguably on better form than his Romeo, when they dance their bodies move lyrically as one, in full sync. Together they delivered a balcony scene full of passion and romantic abandonment, as if they had no other care in the world. They are well matched in temper too, Johan’s headlong Romeo seeming like the kind of guy who would really drop everything in his life once he fell head over heels in love. The extent of his impassioned nature is also very convincingly portrayed after Mercutio’s death, guilt reaching boiling point as he rushes towards Tybalt to retaliate.

Johan Kobborg as Romeo and Alina Cojocaru as Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

With a strong supporting cast full of wonderful performances, from Brian Maloney’s limber, handsomely cast Mercutio, Bennet Gartside’s chilling Tybalt (his death scene one of the most poignant I have ever seen) to Laura Morera’s unparalleled Harlot and Sergei Polunin’s stylish lead Mandolin this is really a performance not to be missed. This same cast is performing again next Wednesday and I would urge those still thinking about it to beg, borrow or steal a ticket.

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Christmas season is definitely upon London, with decorative lights on the streets, people rushing to buy presents, chilly mornings and, ballet-wise, the possibility of finishing off the day with The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker now in its 25th season.

Sir Peter Wright’s staging sticks to the original Hoffmann story where Drosselmeyer’s nephew Hans-Peter has been cursed and turned into a Nutcracker doll by the revengeful Mouse King. The spell can only be broken if he defeats the royal rodent while also capturing a young girl’s heart. Drosselmeyer sees in the Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara the potential to be just that girl. Given the heartwarming plot this Nutcracker could easily slip up into kid-friendly Disney territory but, thanks to the dark German Romantic undertones, it also scores with grown ups.

Clara and Drosselmeyer in The Royal Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Act I takes place at the Stahlbaum home where guests and family are gathered for a Christmas party. Drosselmeyer (a spot-on Will Tuckett) arrives with his deep turquoise cape, gadgets and plenty of magic tricks including giant dancing dolls and the gift of a Nutcracker doll for Clara. Blink and you will miss lovely details such as Gary Avis‘s very funny rheumatic Captain trying to prove “he’s still got it” in the elders dance and the Marzipan cake which will become the sugar-coated stage for the Act II divertissements. The only letdown here is Drosselmeyer’s mending of the Nutcracker doll after it is broken by Clara’s brother as he seems to repair it manually instead of magically as one would expect.

In her debut as Clara, Leanne Cope captures all the freshness of a teenager and her wonder at the supernatural events which unfold before her eyes. Her dancing too was charming despite a couple of early mishaps, presumably due to a slippery floor at the Stahlbaum home. Paul Kay showed beautiful lines and crisp dancing as Hans-Peter, with plenty of energy in the battle with the Mouse King.

In Act II the Stahlbaum home and the Land of Snow give way to the Land of Sweets (Comfiturembourg). Here the often disconnected sequence of divertissements is cleverly linked to the story with the full participation of Clara and Hans-Peter and a mime scene where they explain their battle with the Mouse King to their hosts Prince Coqueluche and The Sugar Plum Fairy (Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez).

Steven McRae as The Prince in The Nutcracker. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Steven has been filled with praise on opening night and deservedly so. Not only does he ace his variation, he also shows regal poise and gentlemanlike manners, taking a step back to let his ballerina shine. Roberta Marquez only keeps getting better (the McRae effect?). Her Sugar Plum Fairy is lovely and even if the tricky gargouillades do not yet fully come through she compensates with phrasing, accentuating gestures such as her delight at meeting her partner, full of rapport with McRae in the pas de deux. Here, both Roberta and Steven give us more than is arguably needed from a short role that calls for no more than solid technique and a beautiful display of line, where all the emotional punch is already contained in Tchaikovsky’s score. Elsewhere, Yuhui Choe was the most beautiful Rose Fairy and her escorts, led by Brian Maloney and Johannes Stepanek were flawless, the Russian dance with Ludovic Ondiviela and Kevin Emerton another highlight.

The closing sequence has Clara back in the real world wondering whether it was all just a dream. Soon a chance meeting with Hans-Peter on the street where she lives suggests quite the contrary. And while the final reunion between Drosselmeyer and Hans-Peter might bring a tear to one’s eye, once the curtain is down over wintry Nuremberg the audience is all smiles. Let Herr Drosselmeyer keep fulfilling his purpose for many years to come.

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Triple bills are a great opportunity to discover rarer ballets along with new works, an essential ingredient in preserving the future of this art form. The Royal Ballet’s latest features a modern and sizzling combination well suited to those seeking refuge from an evening of tutus and tiaras.  It opens with Agon, Balanchine’s iconic work in collaboration with Stravinsky and follows with Glen Tetley’s Sphinx, originally created for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and newly acquired for the company. The bill closes with Wayne McGregor‘s new ballet, Limen, successor to his previous works Chroma and Infra.

Ed and Melissa in Limen

Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Even if modern is not your thing, the genius concept behind Agon merits a visit. Balanchine built it from the interplay between 12 dancers and combinations of patterns and shapes. It demands pristine technique and inherent musicality to sustain the choreography. The steps are akin to those every dancer executes in class but here they do so with a twist (e.g. exaggerated arabesques) and at an incredibly fast tempo. It is always interesting to see the Royal Ballet tackle this type of abstract work because of their dramatic tradition and natural bond with the Ashton and MacMillan repertory. In their hands Agon goes beyond the exploration of movement and amalgamation with music (or its realisation in choreographical terms) and you sense at times they are trying to convey a string of short episodes.

The first cast includes up-and-coming soloists (Yuhui Choe, Hikaru Kobayashi and Brian Maloney) alongside established principals Carlos Acosta and Johan Kobborg and rising star Melissa Hamilton,  fresh from her MacMillan debut as Mary Vetsera last week. The leading men (Acosta and Kobborg, plus Valeri Hristov and Brian Maloney) make Agon’s tricky footwork sequences and off-centred positions look easy, though Daniel Capps‘s conducting seemed to be going against them towards the finale. The ladies were led by Mara Galeazzi, a charmer in the Bransle Gay and by Melissa Hamilton, in the pas de deux with Acosta. 21 year-old Melissa seemed entirely at home in the intricacies of the pas de deux, sinking into a penché so deep that her nose touched the knee as if it were no trouble at all. It was inspiring to see her unique blend of suppleness and elegance contrasting the earthy quality of Acosta’s partnering.

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Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Tetley’s Sphinx fits the company and this particular cast of dancers as snugly as their bodysuits. It must be quite a challenge to balance Tetley’s high-powered choreography with the characterization of each role but Edward Watson‘s acid orange Anubis dazzles and threatens with swirling diagonals while Rupert Pennefather, looking every inch the greek hero, partners solidly. The heart of the ballet comes in the shape of Marianela Nuñez as the Sphinx who risks her life in exchange for a promise of love, and who is ultimately betrayed. She initially appears dominant and powerful, with arms that recalled an elegant bird of prey, but after she whispers the answer to  her own riddle to Pennefather’s Oedipus she changes into a hopeless, defeated creature who now embraces mortality. Sphinx might not be everyone’s cup of tea (its costumes and designs look more Studio 54 than ballet) and those not familiar with Jean Cocteau’s take on Oedipus will be left scratching their heads. We like it, not only for the literary souces, but for its athleticism and this particular cast’s foolhardiness in performing this exhausting piece brilliantly in three consecutive days.

Ed in Sphinx

Edward Watson as Anubis in Glen Tetley's Sphinx (with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in the back). Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

McGregor’s Limen is centred around the themes of life and death, light and darkness and the thresholds in-between, to align with Kaija Saariaho‘s cello concerto “Notes of Light”. Again McGregor taps strongly into technology, via Tatsuo Miyajima‘s designs and amazing lighting by Lucy Carter, to set the mood for the various movements in the music. Limen features a cast of 15 dancers, including many of his regulars.

The choreography stays true to McGregor’s trademark quick movements, contortions and extensions, although since Chroma he has been progressively softening his edgy dance language. There are also nods to previous ballets Agon and Sphinx (e.g. the iconic Agon attitude wrapping the man and the pirouettes with arms à la Sphinx) and, as such, Limen might be McGregor’s own version of a Balanchine ballet: what we are seeing really is a representation of the music and its subliminal message of light against darkness.

Limen opens with a translucent curtain in which numbers are projected, representing the passage of time. The cello’s voice cues in the orchestra  and behind the curtain we see Edward Watson mirroring the music and slowly moving through extensions while new dancers start to emerge  to match the remaining instruments. The second movement is led by Steven McRae and an ensemble of dancers, who become “alive” as they enter a colourful square of light. The orchestra takes over and energetically fights the cello, serving as a backdrop for McRae’s remarkable solo, which combines McGregor’s language with classical vocabulary.

Sarah and Eric in Limen

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Classical dance fully inhabits the third and fourth movements and their lyrical pas de deux. Marianela Nuñez and Brian Maloney echo the brief harmonious dialogue between the cello and the orchestra, while Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood represent Saariaho’s cello eclipse. As Underwood embraces and lifts Sarah, she folds her body in every possible way (with the costumes and dark lighting enhancing the effect) to the fading sound of the instrument.

The final movement is a return to the light, symbolised by a panel of blue LED lights which loom over the dancers now dressed in flesh coloured leotards. Watson carries the emotional baggage of the movement, once more showing his wonderful use of extension. The ballet (or is it the music) ends with a question, as the cello sings its last note (a very high F sharp): have we reached the heart of light or are we back into darkness? The dancers face the back of the stage and the lights dim, Watson the only dancer who stands at a threshold between this ensemble and the front of the stage. Once again McGregor has delivered a keeper, perhaps even a natural conclusion to the trilogy that started with Chroma (Chroma is the absence from white, while Limen might be the absence of colour). It has become clear that he is now more comfortable with classical vocabulary and could be interesting to see what choreographic surprises he might throw at us from now on. We can’t wait.

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Our Mayerling crusade continues with new casts, some debuts and thus interesting new takes on MacMillan’s iconic characters. There are very few lead roles that challenge a danseur’s technique, stamina and dramatic skills as does Crown Prince Rudolf and for Rupert Pennefather to have been offered the opportunity to dance it at such young age is a testament to the company’s trust in his abilities. It takes time to develop a character such as Rudolf. Interpretations such as the ones given by Edward Watson and Johan Kobborg earlier on were mature and full of subtleties, each of these dancers presenting the choreography under a new light: Watson emphazising his extensions to dramatic advantage, Kobborg fleshing out his innate musicality (our take on these previous performances [here] and [here]). Up until now Rupert has been cast in roles that fit his danseur noble physique, so with only one scheduled performance of his second full-length MacMillan role (the first having been Romeo) this was a much needed chance to extend his range as a Principal dancer.

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Rupert Pennefather and Melissa Hamilton in the Royal Ballet's Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

We were again reminded of MacMillan’s amazing ability to show us characters and feelings that are real, each dancer having to find his own motives in portraying the lead role. Pennefather’s Rudolf is initially presented as a stressed heir. Product of an environment where decisions are made for him, the adult Rudolf has remained a spoiled child who longs to be behind his mother’s skirt. This juvenile angle works well for Rupert, not least because of his own young age. Rudolf seems particularly vulnerable in the Act I scene with his mother Empress Elizabeth, whom he sees as a model against which to measure all other women. He relishes being around the strong types (Larisch and Mary), despising those he perceives as weak (case in point, Princess Stephanie).  Technically Rupert was poised and clean, despite some early struggles with the phrasing in Rudolf’s particularly demanding ballroom solo. His various pas de deux were outstanding, his partners fueling his characterization, the dancing more relaxed and fluid. The remarkable last pas de deux in Act 3 looked as good as any other in the run, in no small part due to Rupert’s chemistry with an amazing Mary Vetsera (Melissa Hamilton).

Even though Mayerling is all about the male lead, Rupert’s debuting leading ladies must also have their share of praise. First Artist Melissa Hamilton was a highly anticipated Mary Vetsera. Her beautiful extensions and her supple body have made her a highlight in modern one-act ballets such as McGregor‘s Infra (where she created a role), Wheeldon‘s DGV and Marriott‘s Sensorium. Regulars were curious to see her bridge the gap between this modern niche and the classical repertory. Cast as Mary ahead of several more experienced dancers, Hamilton’s interpretation was very secure. She sparked Pennefather’s Rudolf in such a way  as to make their scenes together not just the evening’s highlight, but a memorable event at Covent Garden. We hope to see more great things from her soon (on that note, next week we get to see her in Limen opposite Edward Watson).

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Rupert Pennefather as Crown Prince Rudolf and Melissa Hamilton as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

The always sharp Marianela Nuñez as the sultry Countess Larisch proves how broad her range is, shifting gears from the sunny Lilac Fairy of last Friday into manipulative vixen here.  It is redundant to praise Marianela for her flawless technique, therefore we can focus on the strength of her characterization as the passionate mistress who has a boy to keep her entertained while scheming and plotting to amuse herself in the Austro-Hungarian court. She was particulary insidious when feeding Mary’s fantasies about Crown Prince Rudolf.

Among the youngsters, the graceful Elizabeth Harrod was an effective Princess Stephanie and Brian Maloney looked poised and charming as Bratfisch. As  for the Hungarian Officers, it was good to see Ludovic Ondiviela as one, while Sergei Polunin has become pure sharpness punctuated by technical wizardry (e.g. an impressive series of three double tours en l’air) as their lead. This was a Mayerling in which to admire the company’s deep pool of talent in fresh new opportunities. Hopefully it won’t be long till we get to see Pennefather’s Rudolf and Hamilton’s Mary Vetsera again.

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

For more on Mayerling, Kenneth MacMillan’s Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium will be held on November 8, 2009 at Imperial College London, as part of Kenneth MacMillan’s 80th Anniversary Celebrations. For more information visit www.kennethmacmillan80thanniversary.com

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